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Are Low-Carb Diets Good For Teens?

Help Your Teen Make Healthy Choices About Low Carb Food

I was floored when my 16-year-old daughter told me that her best friend's soccer coach had put the entire girls' soccer team on a low-carbohydrate diet. After all, in the reams of writing I've done on the subject of childhood nutrition, there are a few general "rules" about kids and food that seem to come up over and over. They are:

  • 1. Teenagers should never diet.
  • 2. Girls should never be told they need to diet.
  • 3. Girls who diet risk loss of bone mass.
  • 4. Female athletes who diet risk loss of bone mass, cessation of menses and eating disorders.
  • 5. Low-carbohydrate diets are bad for everyone.

So my question became this: How do these "rules" apply to low-carb diets and teens? What I discovered is that while numbers 1 through 4 are absolutely true, 5 is definitely open to a healthy interpretation.

Teens and Dieting

Katie Bark, nutritionist and special project coordinator for the Team Nutrition Program at the Montana State University Department of Health and Human Development, says that rule No. 1 is unequivocally true.

"Teens should not be on a diet, because we don't want to teach young people to diet, and we don't want them to develop that diet mentality," says Bark.

She's right to be concerned. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), eating disorders are on the increase among teenage girls and young women. AACAP estimates that as many as 10 in 100 young women suffer from the two most serious eating disorders, anorexia nervosa and bulimia. This disordered eating comes from a variety of societal factors, and encouraging teens to "diet" is no solution. Rather, says Bark, the family should focus on good eating and exercise habits all the time.

And there's the rub. Because the fact is, teens don't generally have good exercise habits, nor do they have a well-rounded diet. Unfortunately, teens, even relatively amenable, well-informed teens like Bark's two teenage daughters and my teenagers, like to eat junk. Soda pop, burgers, French fries and potato chips are much more attractive to teens than grilled fish and steamed veggies – no matter how lovingly the healthy dish is prepared.

Low Carb = Low Sugar

When I told nutritionist Carol Simontacchi the soccer team story, her answer was, "Good. At least they're cutting back on their sugar!"

She went on to qualify her initial reaction with an assurance that she does not like fad diets, does not like the idea of teens being on diets and thinks that Atkins is not a healthful low-carb approach. However, she also said the fact is that kids eat too much processed foods, eat and drink too much sugar and too many chemicals, and, in general, a low-carb diet can't be much worse than what they're already putting into their bodies.

Simontacchi should know. She's the author of The Crazy Makers: How the Food Industry Is Destroying Our Brains and Harming Our Children (J. P. Tarcher, 2001) and the mother of four children who don't always appreciate her nutritional expertise.

"The reality is that kids' eating habits are so bad at this point that if a low-carb diet can get them off junk food and soft drinks, it will be doing some good," says Simontacchi. "Yes, some of the diets encourage a lot of red meat, but which is more harmful, red meat or 46 ounces of soft drinks?"

What low-carb diets do encourage that Simontacchi thinks is a good trend is vegetables. "Maybe low-carb is not good, but they're now eating three servings of vegetables a day, up from zero servings before," says Simontacchi. "Maybe it will balance their blood sugar, and that's simply not a bad thing."

Bad Carbs, Good Carbs

Nori Hudson is another fan of low-carb diets – within reason. Hudson, a nutritionist and educator, says the problem with almost everyone's diet is that we eat like marathon runners and then sit on the couch.

"Carbs are the body's preferred source of energy, but when we don't use those carbs, the body turns it to fat," says Hudson. "The foods that tend to be quick foods are usually over-processed carbohydrates, such as potato chips and crackers. These are not foods anyone should be eating."

Like Bark and Simontacchi, Hudson notes that no young person should diet. However, she deplores the eating habits of today's teens and, like Simontacchi, thinks a low-carb diet can lead to some improvement in eating habits – if it's done in a healthful manner.

In other words, low-carb isn't necessarily unhealthy, just the recent fad diets that promote it, such as Atkins. "The Atkins diet is simply too restrictive to be healthful for a teen who is growing and putting down 50 percent of their calcium in the bone bank for future bone health," says Bark.

A recent study published in the National Library of Medicine justifies Bark's concerns. It showed strong anecdotal evidence that a low-carb diet followed for as little as six weeks can increase the risk for bone loss. While this is not desirable at any age group, it can be particularly devastating to the long-term bone health of teenage girls who are following Atkins-type diets, which severely limit healthy calcium sources.

However, a diet that restricts processed carbohydrates, such as white breads, potato chips and sugary snacks, in favor of high-quality carbohydrates such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains, is an excellent choice for anyone. Pair that with protein sources that are lower in saturated fats, such as poultry and fish, and low-fat dairy products, such as skim milk and fat-free yogurts, and you have a healthy diet.

Is it low-carb? It is if you compare it to what teens normally eat. Is it healthy? Absolutely, as long as the idea is to make healthful food choices and not to restrict calories.

Those Wild Teen Eaters

And now back to my daughter's best friend's diet. She wasn't on it for three minutes before she was eating pizza in my kitchen. Why? Because she's a teenager, that's why.

There's so much research showing that teens are hardwired to do the opposite of whatever it is their parents want them to do that quoting it here would make this article a book. So I'll just quote my experts, Bark and Simontacchi, two nutritionists with six teenagers between them.

"My kids have been brought up on a healthy diet and been taught extensively about good nutrition, but they're teens and they're eating stuff they know I don't like, and I hate it," says Simontacchi. "One day, I said to my daughter, 'I'm a nutritionist and this is what my kids are bringing into my house?' Her answer was that if I saw what the other kids are eating, I would see that I had really made progress with them."

"I have two daughters, 17 and 16, and it's so normal for them to exert their independence by going out to eat," says Bark. "It can make you crazy, but you really have to be careful not to push, or they go even further in the other direction."

Both professional and personal experiences have taught Bark and Simontacchi that keeping the lines of communication open is important. If your child tells you she is on or wants to be on a low-carb diet, make sure she understands what healthy choices she can make within those parameters. Explain the pros and cons of low-carb – particularly the concerns about loss of bone mass – and make sure he or she has healthy, low-carb choices at home, since those that are offered in restaurants and fast-food places often rely heavily on unhealthy, saturated fats.

Simontacchi says that making deals works also. For example, tell him that you'll support his low-carb diet approach if he promises to eat at least two vegetables per day.

And don't give up. Like many other things that they do from the time they're toddlers until they hit about 30, this, too, shall pass. Eventually, they will grow out of the teen junk food phase and remember the good food habits you've always tried to instill.

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